BRIGHTON’S PARTY SPIRIT has been going strong for centuries, ever since the Prince Regent descended with his mistress back in 1783 and coined the phrase ‘the dirty weekend’. But this Regency playground, with its psychedelic pleasure palace and seafront splendour, soon fell into disrepair and became better known for its depressing boarding houses, decrepit architectural gems and rowdy pier arcades. Today, while the seaside town retains its fan club of hen weekenders, the city has also become firmly stamped on the cultural map, with fringe festivals and art galleries across town. Most importantly, it’s an incredibly child-friendly place and a magnet for young families drawn by the dream of city life in Little London By The Sea.
With seven miles of accessible coastline, Brighton’s vast diversity is epitomised on its seafront, where vendors sit alongside artists’ studios and trendy bars. Children will love marching up and down the promenade, inhaling the tangy sea-salt air, which is why the Pirates Playground is a great starting point for any visit.
Bang on the seafront, this is a smashing, squeaky-clean, wooden pirate ship with sunshades for sails and a beach-shaped sandpit offering a safe play environment for children from toddlers upwards. The area also doubles as
a children’s swimming pool during the summer months, when it takes on the air of a beach resort, complete with deckchairs circling the toddler-friendly pool. I found, however, that my two-year-old was more interested in sifting through the shingle and shells on the beach and depositing them on the timbered boardwalk that had been designed to save your feet from those self-same pebbles.
Behind the playground, you will find the old-fashioned Holiday Shop (2), where buckets and spades and jelly shoes nestle next to the handmade marionettes and driftwood mirrors. It’s worth a peep for a blast of nostalgia – or for those forgotten essentials.
Next door is a trendy café of rabbit-warren proportions that sells organic chocolate, ice cream, apple rice cakes, mini hot chocolates and baby cinos. The
Beach House Café serves great lattes too, so this is the place to grab one to take along with you on your promenade stroll. Keep walking past Alfresco, a wonderful Art Deco restaurant with the best seaside views in
town (but unfortunately not very child-friendly) and
head in the direction of Brighton Pier. Nip up the ramp
on your left, which takes you onto King’s Road. Walk
past the candy store, which has the perfectly preserved store frontage stating ‘Brighton Rock’, until you are standing opposite the West Pier – currently a black, burnt-out shell of past glories.
Erected in 1866, this ghostly, skeletal structure, once a Grade I-listed pier, fell into decline after the Second World War and suffered a major fire in 2003. But it will rise once more from the ashes as the council has been granted planning permission to build a 600-foot observation tower on the bedraggled site. Costing a mere £20 million, it is scheduled to be opened to the public in 2009, when visitors will be able to gaze at the panorama of the city. You can read about the progress on large billboards that include photographs of what the pier looked like at the turn of the last century.
On the opposite side of the street, at the corner of Regency Square, sits the Regency Restaurant, offering freshly caught fish and chips in an extremely child-friendly atmosphere. We turned up with screaming babies and rowdy toddlers, who polished off steaming plates of spaghetti bolognese, while parents devoured fish and chips and mushy peas at record speed. Despite the war zone of broken crayons, abandoned cutlery and half a plate’s worth of food under our table, the staff remained unfazed.
Walk back down the ramp and along the seafront, passing fishing boats – great for older children to clamber on – and traditional fishmongers, selling freshly caught seafood and smoked fish. The Artists’ Quarter is home to a selection of quirky studios and cafés. Pop into Two Kats And A Cow, the artist-led studio and gallery which houses some great temporary exhibitions as well as pieces that are far more affordable than those in major city centres.
Push back up to King’s Road and over to Middle Street, where you’ll discover a celebration of chocolate at Choccywoccydoodah. Here you can enjoy a heavenly hot chocolate or a Belgian chocolate dipping pot to share with pieces of marshmallows, fudge and strawberries to dip. (To pre-plan your order, take a look at the menu at www.choccywoccydoodah.com)
From Middle Street, make your way up towards Friends’ Meeting House. En route, don’t forget to window shop at Charlie Barley, a children’s clothes store selling fabulous fashion lines. Another excellent store is Pure South, a South African craft shop directly opposite, that is crammed with products from the Cape Town area. They also have a great selection of unique beaded animals and chicken sculptures made from plastic bags.
An alternative boutique is Purple-Heart.com which is ideal for finding a quirky memento of your day by the seaside. There is a great selection of unusual gifts, with children particularly well catered for. Vibrantly colourful pencil tins, glow-in-the-dark ducks, bracelets and fairy wings are all popular choices, but there are also exclusive ranges, such as Fairtrade bookends and hand-painted wellies from Australia. There is also a lovely range of clothing for babies and children as well as mobiles, toys and toiletries – just be sure not to take too long, because there are still a lot of things to fit into your day out.
Head back up the road until you reach Friends’ Meeting House where you will find yourself at the foot of a network of higgledy-piggledy streets that are collectively known as The Lanes. Before you dive in, be sure to pick up a soyaccino at Wai Kika Moo Kau, a café where all drinks are soya-based. It is also renowned for specialising in very tasty vegetarian meals and smoothies.
There are many weird and wonderful things to be found in The Lanes – from antique shops to tiny arts-and-crafts galleries. But beware, the tightly-woven streets were originally designed to hide smugglers, so they don’t always make the best buggy-friendly routes.
Once you’ve exhausted the rich variety of The Lanes, make an exit through Market Street and turn left up East Street towards the Royal Pavilion Gardens. When you enter the gardens and catch sight of the palace, you’ll be hard-pressed not to admire the sheer breathtaking boldness of the Royal Pavilion, George IV’s oriental play pen, which was drawn up by architect John Nash and completed in 1823. It’s a magnificent stop, but sadly, not pram-friendly. If you are happy shelling out a fiver you can have a quick zoom around the ground floor, which includes the banqueting room with its awesome chandelier and kitchen – these are the big crowd-pullers. But there is no lift to get to the upper floors, and the staircase is a little terrifying to manage with a pushchair, so access to the upstairs rooms and tea shop is not the easiest
An alternative is to push on past the Royal Pavilion and make a beeline for the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, which is situated next to the Dome Theatre in the Royal Pavilion Gardens. It’s light, airy and free with plenty of children’s activities, and it looks absolutely fabulous since its millennium makeover.
There’s a lovely open-plan museum shop to the left of the entrance and, most importantly, a buggy-friendly route through the museum, via the lift, up to an attractive café on the first floor, which also offers a bird’s-eye view of the ground floor’s 20th Century Art and Design gallery. From here, you can reflect on the surreal Mae West’s Lips, a sofa which was designed by Salvador Dalí with Edward James in 1936 and upholstered in luscious, shiny satin.
Before heading back to the ground floor, be sure to pop into the fine art gallery where there is the wonderful Red Scramble by Frank Stella. In this painting, the US minimalist creates geometric bands of red, orange, pink and purple that form squares within squares – great for looking at with toddlers and naming colours and shapes. Every Tuesday, the museum runs an Early Years session for two- to five-year-olds where children can participate in art activities and a museum expedition, during which they are allowed to handle some of the museum objects (if you are willing to risk a heart attack before the end of this walk…). For older children, creative art activities take place most Saturdays using various media and led by respected children’s book illustrators, such as the well-loved Sue Hendra.
Come out of the gardens crossing into East Street and keep walking until you hit the seafront, with Brighton Pier beckoning to children on your left. Halfway down this street is
Terre à Terre. Cleverly capitalising on the need to keep younger audiences happy, this organic vegetarian restaurant is child-friendly in design, attitude and menu. Not only are there toy boxes and crayons as well as high chairs and children’s drinks, but jars of organic baby food and nappies too – free and as part of the service. You can enjoy breakfast and lunch any time of the day, as well as coffee and cakes, or even a high tea. There’s also an imaginative dessert line-up, with chocolate truffle cake just one of those on the dangerously delicious list.
Should you find that your children still have way too much energy as you head back down to the seafront, then the Sea Life Centre, situated opposite Brighton Pier, is the ideal destination (www.sealifeeurope.com). Children could potentially spend hours watching all the wonderful wildlife that swims around them here. A grand Victorian building, the Centre holds the title as the oldest operating aquarium in the world, housing over 150 species of aquatic life. Children can get hands-on with the crabs in the rock pool display. They can also feed baby rays and come face-to-face with giant turtles and sharks in the tropical reef and the underwater tunnel. Newly opened for 2008, there is an Amazon rainforest display where you will be able to lose yourself – but not your children – and where they will be able to discover the many weird and wonderful creatures who make this type of undergrowth their domestic habitat.
Before you depart from this lovely shoreside retreat, enjoy a winding down drink at the Seattle Hotel located at Brighton Marina. It is the best of the bunch
for families – and good also if you decide to stay the night, with many of the rooms boasting fabulous sea views. However, the jewel in the crown at this hotel is the highly acclaimed restaurant Café Paradiso. The menu is inspired by fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, while puddings – such as champagne-poached strawberries –
are a gloriously indulgent treat for parent and child
alike. All in all, it is the perfect way to end a perfectly wonderful day by the seaside
Things to do
- Brighton Toy Museum With over 10,000 toys and models on display and period antique toys, this museum offers hours of entertainment for aspiring Fat Controllers. If your child is a big fan, there is also a shop that sells collectable period toys. Visit
- Jubilee Library A fantastic new building with an excellent children’s library. Call in on a Wednesday for Story Time. Tel: 01273 296960.
Paint Pots Children select a cup, plate or candlestick to paint. The shop glazes it ready to pick up at the end of the day. Tel: 01273 696682.
The Volks Electric Railway If it is too sodden to walk along the seaside, take a ride on the world’s oldest operating electric railway. Four trains run every hour between Black Rock and Brighton Pier.